Stop trying to be Busy
Note: The views expressed in this article are my views alone and not the views of my employer or anyone else.
Ever since high school, I’ve heard people use the word “busy” very frequently. Up until the end of college, I took it on face value and even threw the word “busy” around myself. Busy was seen as a regular part of school, college and work life, and nobody really questioned it. What I started noticing both during and after college was that people were not just busy, but were actively trying to be busy.
In my opinion, people should stop trying to be busy. So what do I mean by that? We all lead pretty busy lives and most of us have pretty packed schedules. What’s interesting is that most people like it and actually prefer to be busy. The reasons vary but one of them is about social status. We don’t just want to be busy, we want to be able to tell others how busy we are. This is a broader theme across our society — the bug is now the feature. What used to be dreaded on like working and being busy is now seen as socially desirable.
Being genuinely busy is fine but you should ask yourself if you fit into 1 or more of these buckets:
1. You have kids
2. You have personal or family commitments
3. You’re in a high stress job like Investment Banking
If you’re in all 3 of these buckets, then you genuinely are busy and even if you only have 1 of these, it’s enough to eliminate a lot of free time in your schedule. Even for investment bankers, working 100 hours a week is highly inefficient, in other words, no one is actually working 100 hours a week. When people say they’re studying all the time or sitting at their desk all the time with no breaks, it is highly unlikely that they are even being close to 100% efficient. I can speak for my own experience that when I’ve pulled all-nighters for exams, about 3 hours of it was wasted watching random YouTube videos or staring at the same problem set, which even if it is studying is not efficient.
Even if it’s inefficient, being busy can also a cultural thing. In Asia, the culture is to work long hours because otherwise it shows you’re not interested and not trying. Despite the long hours though, only Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong rank in the top 10 for global competitiveness by the World Economic Forum. The reasons partly have to do with the technological and financial advantages several western economies started with making them more productive. But part of it is also that working long hours is just not as productive. In fact, Japan is actually trying to get employers to reduce the number of working hours to improve its country’s productivity.
In work contexts, for some people, being busy is partly because they don’t know what else to do. Their jam packed schedule may have been real at some point and in that time period, they never invested in hobbies or other side activities. As a result, when they are not genuinely busy anymore, they don’t know what else to do because of which they end up trying to fill the gap in their life with work. They end up not knowing what else to talk about in social settings; i.e. they often talk about work. It sort of acts as a cop out for people. When you haven’t seen someone in a while and you ask them “how’s it going”, they generally talk about work or just say “busy”; it’s a pretty succinct answer.
Even if they’re not busy with office work, they come from a world where time is money and so therefore any time they waste either not working or not being productive is wasting money to them. It isn’t just in terms of being busy, people like this and society in general don’t know what to do for a short period of time. Let’s say you’re waiting for your friend and they’re 15 minutes late, what’s the first thing you do? You pull out your phone. Are you doing anything important there? Probably not but you don’t know how to essentially do nothing for 15 minutes. Even if what you’re doing is completely meaningless like playing doodle jump, you feel better than if you had just waited those 15 minutes doing nothing.
In general though, people are always busy even a lot of them don’t fit into any 3 of these buckets. A lot of it might be for social status but a lot of it might be bad time management. There are a whole host of reasons.
So then, why are they really busy?
When people say they’re busy continuously, and I mean for 3 months straight and again, they don’t fit into any of the 3 categories above, the obvious answer is that they don’t like you and are trying to avoid you. That may be true, saying you’re busy is easier than saying you don’t like someone or saying you don’t like the particular activity planned. But I’ve been in cases where someone repeatedly said they were busy and made an active effort to reschedule, only to reschedule again. In these cases, the person genuinely seemed busy but here it comes down to 6 possibilities:
1. Their friends are busy — When I was in high school, people did a lot of activities, took a lot of AP classes and had a jam packed schedule. Some of it was just the incentive system created by universities that rewarded these activities, some of them might have actually liked these activities but part of it might have also been that their friends were busy (FOMO). In essence, if our friends are busy, it pushes us to want to be busy too. If people around you are idle, you may feel less compelled to be busy all the time, unless that’s your personality type.
2. They don’t like being idle — Some people just don’t like the idea of not doing anything, whether their friends are idle or not. It could be something they are used to from a high stress job they used to do that cultured them in a certain way. They may not be doing it now but the attitude has been ingrained in them. They generally have every hour of their schedule planned out and this is outside of work. People like this feel “wasted” if they don’t do something productive in the day and need some activity in the day to keep them going.
3. They don’t know what they like — Sometimes people try out a lot of things because they don’t know what they like yet. When I first moved to Houston and NYC, I joined a lot of meetups to see what types of activities and people I would click with. My schedule was packed and I was “busy”, but it was mostly fluff and I didn’t like more than half of those activities. Eventually I figured out what I liked and I freed up a lot of time in my schedule.
4. They bit off more than they could chew — Sometimes when we have free time, we think there’s a lot we can pile onto our schedule. Slowly as those activities become more hectic and our original free time becomes less than expected, our schedule becomes a lot more hectic. Some people will cancel their excess activities and commitments in the event that their schedule is overloaded. Some will actually stick to their commitments and figure out a way to juggle it all.
5. They’re bad at time management — This is related to the previous point. As with the investment banker example above, working 100 hours a week is just not productive. People who cancel plans because they’re busy often don’t spend their time wisely when they’re supposed to. They might have bitten off more than they could chew but it’s more likely that they’re not being efficient in their work.
6. They think they’re impressing people — This is probably the worst reason to be busy but it is often the most common. This is very common in high stress industries like Investment Banking and Consulting where Type-A individuals are always trying to one-up each other in terms of taking on harder assignments and doing more work. People here don’t just want to be busy but they want to make sure everyone knows they’re busy. This is in the form of talking about pulling all-nighters or talking about the vast number of projects they’re working on. In my experience, they’re not really impressing anyone and if they are, it is very small and temporary gratification.
People are not limited to only one of these possibilities, they could very well be busy for all 6 of those reasons. The most common reasons I’ve seen for being busy are because their friends are busy and being bad at time management.
Busy is not the same as Long Term Planning
Everybody plans for the future; this includes short, medium and long term plans. Medium and long term plans tend to be more high level and more about goal setting; Short term plans tend to be more granular. Being busy means you’ve planned things on a granular level; that it is no longer something you plan on doing but something you will do. So now the question is how many weeks ahead do people have planned out already? I know for me, in my personal life, the answer is 3 weeks. I have medium and long term plans but those are high level. In terms of execution and commitment, I have not booked myself up for the next 3 months like some people. In order to be booked up that far in advance, you pretty much have to be doing a class of some sorts or doing something with hard coded dates like a concert. There are other commitments that are looser in nature. There are some commitments on my calendar 3 months from now that I may or may not attend depending on the circumstance. When people say they’re busy 3 months from now, their answer may very well change depending on whether they feel like doing the activity they’ve loosely committed to!
Occupied vs. Busy
When people say they’re busy, more often than not, they’re occupied. So what’s the difference? Like with the planning example above, busy tends to be more hard coated whereas occupied is something that you are doing but are able to put on hold if a need arose. If you’re at work and you’re “occupied” and someone you don’t prioritize asks you to do something, you’re likely to tell them you’re busy and can’t do the work. If your boss asks you to do something, you pause what you’re doing and do the task. The key difference is priorities. In the first case, you’re busy but it’s not set in stone. You also don’t think the person who’s asking you to do the task is high on your priority list, so you say you’re “busy”. If you’re busy and not occupied, you may not help your boss in that case because it’s a hard coated commitment. For example, if you have a meeting at 3 pm and your boss asks you to do something at that time, most people would say they’re unable to do it’s unless it’s some sort of emergency. This doesn’t just apply to work, people in general prioritize certain people over others and determine where to spend their semi-occupied time.
Liking vs. prioritizing someone
In the example above, we looked at cases where the person liked the other person and also where they had work to do, whether they were occupied or busy. There’s a third component to both is which is not liking the person and cases where the person has genuine free time. In the table below, I outline how likely you are to do something depending on your levels of free time and whether you like the person or not. There’s a question mark for 3 of them and that’s because it is pretty subjective. If you like someone but you’re genuinely busy, you may try to do the task but it is unlikely. The same goes for being occupied and liking but not prioritizing someone. If the person doesn’t really like you, then only if they are really, really free will they even attempt to make time for you, if any. The most common vertical people will have to do deal with is “Like but don’t prioritize someone”. Most people in the world are not mean and they don’t hate you but they also don’t prioritize you and so knowing how likely they are to help you depending on their level of free time is crucially important.
In conclusion, “busy” is a term we callously use in our society. People say they’re busy when more often than not, they’re occupied. More importantly, we should stop trying to be busy, particularly if we think we’re impressing people. It doesn’t work. Being genuinely busy is fine but being busy for the sake of being busy isn’t helping anyone.